More on Married Deacons and Continence

Some months ago, there was a controversy on various Catholic blogs as to whether married Catholic deacons may have marital relations with their spouses. Dr. Ed Peters of In the Light of the Law (A Canon lawyer’s blog) proposed an interpretation of Canon law that would forbid all married permanent deacons from having marital relations with their spouses. Note that his position is based only on Canon law:

Briefly, my canonical arguments for clerical continence as binding married clerics do not, repeat not, depend on my ability to prove the “apostolic origins” of clerical continence. My arguments for clerical continence rest on what the law requires today. (post of 8 August 2012)

He is not arguing that the eternal moral law, or Sacred Tradition or Sacred Scripture require married permanent deacons to refrain perpetually from marital relations. He is only arguing that this continence is current discipline, not doctrine.

Now I thought that the controversy was settled when the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts gave its authoritative interpretation of Canon law on this point:

In recent months, published opinions have appeared in scholarly journals and on Internet blogs that have raised questions about the observance of diaconal continence by married permanent deacons in the Latin Catholic Church. The opinions have suggested that the clerical obligation to observe “perfect and perpetual continence for the sake of the kingdom of heaven” (c. 277, §1 CIC) remains binding upon married permanent deacons, despite the dispensation provided to them in canon law from the obligation to observe celibacy (c. 1042, 1° CIC).

In response to repeated requests for an authoritative clarification on this matter, the Committee on Clergy, Consecrated Life and Vocations and the Committee on Canonical Affairs and Church Governance requested the assistance of the USCCB President in seeking a clarification from the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts.

Earlier this week, we were informed that Cardinal-designate Francesco Coccopalmerio, President of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, with Bishop Juan Ignacio Arrieta, Secretary, has forwarded to Cardinal-designate Timothy M. Dolan the Pontifical Council’s observations on the matter (Prot. N. 13095/2011). The observations, which were formulated in consultation with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, clarify that married permanent deacons are not bound to observe perfect and perpetual continence, as long as their marriage lasts. (Deacon’s Bench)

But Dr. Peters continues to insist that his interpretation is correct.

If the Pope or a Cardinal or Bishop had expressed a personal theological opinion, any faithful Catholic might legitimately disagree. If the Magisterium has a non-infallible teaching on a matter of faith or morals, there remains the possibility of limited but licit theological dissent. The basis for the dissent would be that Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture are to be understood as teaching a different doctrine than the non-infallible teaching or the theological opinion. (On the other hand, any infallible teaching of the Magisterium requires the full assent of faith.)

But those matters of Canon law that are per se of Church law, not expressions in Canon law of Church doctrine on faith or morals, are merely of discipline, not doctrine. The temporal authority of the Church can make one decision on discipline, and change it at any time to another decision. So when proper authority in the Church over Canon law, the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, rules that a Canon is to be understood in a certain way, they cannot be mistaken because the Church determines the meaning by its own authority. The PCLT could possibly be mistaken on an interpretation of Tradition or Scripture, but when they decide a matter of Canon law, then that is what the Canon means. For in so far as any Canon is per se of discipline not doctrine, its meaning solely determined by Church authority.

Therefore, an interpretation of Canon law by Dr. Ed Peters cannot suffice to contradict the decision of the PCLT as to what a Canon or set of Canons require of married deacons. The PCLT has ruled that Canon 277 does not apply to married permanent deacons, due to the implied meaning of Canon 1042.

Can. 277 §1. Clerics are obliged to observe perfect and perpetual continence for the sake of the kingdom of heaven and therefore are bound to celibacy which is a special gift of God by which sacred ministers can adhere more easily to Christ with an undivided heart and are able to dedicate themselves more freely to the service of God and humanity.

§2. Clerics are to behave with due prudence towards persons whose company can endanger their obligation to observe continence or give rise to scandal among the faithful.

Can. 1042 The following are simply impeded from receiving orders:

1/ a man who has a wife, unless he is legitimately destined to the permanent diaconate;

Therefore, the obligation of continence does not apply to married permanent deacons.

A matter of discipline is solely determined by the proper authority for that discipline. Peters can argue that the Canon is unclear and should be changed. He can argue that the decision to allow marital relations is not the better decision on a matter of discipline. But he really has no grounds for claiming that Canon law requires perfect and perpetual continence of married deacons, since proper authority has ruled otherwise. If this were a matter of doctrine, someone might argue that the decision of the PCLT is an incorrect understanding of the immutable eternal moral law. But since it is merely a matter of discipline, the Church can decide as She sees fit.

Moreover, the idea of exceptions to broad statements is firmly established in Church teaching. For example, this passage from Sacred Scripture

{3:23} For all have sinned and all are in need of the glory of God.

is used by Protestants to argue that the Blessed Virgin Mary cannot be sinless. But the Catholic interpretation simply understands that Mary is an exception to this broad statement that all have sinned. So it is not a contradiction for the PCLT to rule that Canon 277 simply does not include married clerics.

And this ruling is supported, not only by Canon 1042, but also by the second part of Canon 277, which states that clerics should use prudence toward anyone whose “company can endanger their obligation to observe continence or give rise to scandal among the faithful.” This assertion would make little sense if the Canon included married deacons. Then the married deacon would have to avoid company with his own wife, because it might endanger his obligation to observe continence (if Peters’ interpretation were to prevail). And if the deacon lived in the same home with his wife, it would both “endanger his obligation” and be a cause of scandal. The faithful would reasonably presume that the married deacon who continues to live with his wife was having marital relations.

So it is no longer an open question as to how we should understand the requirements of married deacons in Canon law. Dr. Peters’ continued insistence that married deacons must observe perfect and perpetual continence is no longer a legitimate opinion on an open question. It is a gravely harmful error. He is harming the marital union of legitimate spouses in the Church.

See my other posts on the subject:

May married deacons have marital relations?
Married deacons: celibacy, continence, chastity

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and
translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

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1 Response to More on Married Deacons and Continence

  1. Hello Mr. Conte. To the degree that your position rests on the claim that the “proper authority in the Church over Canon law, the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, rule[d] that Canon [277] is to be understood in a certain way…” may I suggest that you examine the PCLT letter in the light of norms governing official rulings on legal texts in the Church. Best, edp.

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